Photos: Alex Benedetto
Photos: Alex Benedetto

Espita Mezcaleria: In a League All Its Own

You’d be hard-pressed to find anything in the DC area quite like Espita Mezcaleria.

The Southern Mexican restaurant and mezcal bar in Shaw has been open for just over a year. In that time, the restaurant has garnered high praise from pretty much every local and national reviewer for its commitment to authentic Oaxacan cuisine with modern flair and a carefully curated mezcal menu.

Everything at Espita is in the details, from the handmade corn tortillas, which require the kitchen to stay open 24 hours a day and employ four full-time tortilla makers, to the 100-plus individually selected mezcal, to the artistry on the walls of the restaurant’s industrial interior that bring the space to life.

“There’s people who are doing every aspect of what we’re doing, but not all of it together,” explains Josh Phillips, owner and general manager of Espita.

Phillips and his team have made several trips to the Mexican coastal town of Oaxaca, which serves as the base for Espita’s cuisine and beverage offerings.

The menu features several Oaxacan specialties ($14-$26), including mole, which Phillips was adamant about having multiple offerings of even though it is a time-consuming process. The menu serves unique twists on classic mole, such as cured lamb belly, whole brook trout and pork belly, with sauces that will have you yearning for anything in reach to grab the last bits. The poblano mole, with turnips, fava and mizuna served over a mole of chile mulato raisin, walnut and chocolate, is to die for.

Also notable on the menu is the selection of tlayudas, which Phillips says are the “most Oaxacan dishes on the menu,” comprised of a large, crispy, hand-pressed, paper-thin tortilla with smeared pork lard, cabbage or lettuce, and beans, with a variety of options for the toppings. Try the chorizo verde topping for your tlayudas, though all are equally tasty.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good cross-section of great bar and great food at the right price,” Phillips says. “We try to price our mezcal in a fairly approachable way, and mezcal is definitely not cheap.”

Espita’s house mezcal is sourced directly from good friends, the Jimenez family in Santiago Mazatlán, which helps the restaurant keep the prices down. Phillips and his team have built a relationship with the family over several trips to Oaxaca, and have been quite successful in selling the house mezcals at the restaurant, including a specialty batch. The house mezcal, made from 100 percent Cuixe agave, will be available now until the supply runs out at Espita.

“In Oaxaca, very much like going to a countryside Italian restaurant with house wine, there is house mezcal that is actually something better, something that is contracted from a friend,” he says. “And it tends to be a really good value because they are not going through distributors or all these layers of profitability.”

One does not need to be an experienced mezcal drinker to enjoy the beverage at Espita, with the entire staff educated fully on the intricacies of everything mezcal.

“Our bartenders always ask, ‘What spirit do you normally drink?’ when trying to recommend a mezcal, because it tends to steer you in the direction you want to be,” Phillips explains.

He recommends going for one of the flight offerings, all served with orange slices and sal de gusano, a sign of hospitality in Oaxaca. The flights ($25-$36) are geared toward different flavor profiles such as “Whiskeys of Mezcal,” which as you guessed are those mezcals reminiscent of various whiskey grains.

Guests can also try the mezcal in a variety of cocktails, with several new seasonal offerings including the refreshing “People of the Clouds” (espadin mezcal and jicama lemon served on the rocks with lavender jicama sticks) and “Chamomile Spritz” (chamomile-infused espadin, verdejo, malic and citric acids).

Espita also recently partnered with DC-based 3 Stars Brewing Company to create a limited release Chamomile Saison, available exclusively at the restaurant. The crisp and refreshing beer is sure to become a seasonal favorite, and goes perfectly with any of the offerings on Espita’s menu.

Happy hour: Monday through Friday from 5-8 p.m. in the bar and dining room, with $4 rotating draught beer, $6 seasonal sangria and rum punch.

Espita Mezcaleria: 1250 9th Street NW, DC; 202-621-9695; www.espitadc.com

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Alex Thompson

Alex is a fan of all things food and sports, as well as a writer. By day she is a nonprofit communications manager, and by night she is searching the District for the best cocktails, whiskey selection and cuisine. Check out her blog at hellofoodgirl.com and follow her on twitter at @sportsfoodalex.